Charles Marsh: I just wonder what you were doing during summer ’64, late spring of ’64.
Bob Zellner: Well, early summer of ’64 was a very–early summer of ’64, it was a very horrendous time because I was one of the instructors at the first session at Oxford, to run the workshops and so forth. And we had a tremendously large number of people train intensively for self-protection, and you’ve just gotta give ‘em the basic rudiments of movement class and so forth and how to stay alive and how to survive. And at the end of that week, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney disappeared and Forman said to me, he says “I can’t ask you to go to Nashoba County but somebody from here has to go with Rita, because–and it’s very important to get there now, because we don’t know–we know that local people will probably not tell the FBI anything, because of all the history of, you tell the FBI, it’s like telling no one. And we say, you’re really gonna have to go in there at night and try to find out what you can because if there’s even a thread of a possibility that they’re still alive, it’s the only way we can get to them. Go with Rita, go in there and see if”–you know. It was still an off chance that they were being held somewhere and we might be able to get in and get ‘em out of there. So that’s what I did for the first several weeks summer ’64.
CM: You and Rita went on–how soon after the disappearance.
BZ: As soon as we knew they were disappeared, we flew to Meridian. Probably on Sunday. I think they disappeared on Saturday, I don’t know, but we were there the next day. And then we had a press conference in Redmond and so forth and we went in that night.
BZ: Into Philadelphia. And that was about the most terrifying thing. By this time I was a long-time veteran, but I thought that was my last foray because I knew if they ever got us, at that point, nothing was happening at all, federal government wasn’t mobilizing, nothing. And I knew if they got us, that we would be killed. And they in fact laid an ambush for us at the church. But after we’d seen a number of people that night we went to–
CM: Who were you seeing?
BZ: We went to the church. We were seeing a number of people in the community that were the people who were more likely to have been people that would know what time they were there and may know something about what–what happened to them.
CM: You weren’t talking to Rainey, Sheriff Brown?
BZ: No, no.
CM: Florence Mars, people like that?
BZ: Yeah, the people at the church. Some of them had been beaten already and–
CM: I see.
BZ: So, those were the people that we were seeing. And they were getting in there in the dark of night, trying to keep from being spotted by the Klan, and they were in their trucks with their CVs and they were moving everywhere. And they were keeping most of the town under surveillance, so sometimes I think we would park somewhere else and go through fields, go somewhere else to get here. Cause the last thing we did was go to the church and it’s down a long dirt road.
BZ: Yeah, the church that was burned.
CM: Yeah, I went there last summer.
BZ: Well, you remember there was–there’s a little turnoff, off the road like this, and when we turned off the road to go in there, I saw a silhouette of some men standing in the woods with guns.
CM: At the church.
BZ: And pickup trucks. Beyond the church.
CM: Beyond the church.
BZ: Beyond the church, on the road. So when I swung around like that, my headlights went past them.
CM: It’s just you and Rita right now.
BZ: It was me and Rita and white lawyer. And I can’t–you know, we had the lawyers come down for two, three weeks and sometimes just a few days at a time. And I often wonder, some of these days, one of these days I’m gonna find out who that lawyer was. But it was me and Rita and a lawyer and we had a little, luckily we had a highly maneuverable car, which save dour lives actually because, when we, when I saw those people I didn’t immediately start running, but I just – like I, just swung around out there and we just started back the way that we come because they had the road blocked back there. And they gradually just fell in behind me. And I said, “well, this–” and I didn’t think about blocking the road in front of us. But what they had done was pull a flatbed truck across the road around the curve in front of us, so we saw that truck. It was a flatbed truck across the road and two or three pickup trucks alongside of that.
CM: Still on the dirt road?
BZ: Still on the dirt road, yes. A little ditch on the side.
BZ: And, so, the lawyer–lawyer said, “Well, stop. Stop and talk to them.” And I said, “Man, it’s the last thing that we will do. You stop when you have to, you do not stop.” He said “What you gonna do?” I said, “I’m gonna get out of here.” And Rita was sold, she said “Do what you gotta do.” And I said, “Ok, everybody hang on. We’re fixing to go back.” So, as I came up to their, they expect me to just drive up and stop, right? So what I did was when I drove up I swung a little bit to the left and I checked the trees out on both sides. By this time it was just getting daylight, so I could see the silhouette in the tress and it was like a video game, I just had to make an instant decision about whether to go across the ditch to the left or the right And I was gonna go through the ditch, try to get through the ditch and through the little bit of bushes that was there, and get into the pine trees, ‘cause I had a chance if I could get in there and not hit anyone, stalling, I had a chance. I had to skid through there and get around that truck and I knew if I could get around that truck I had a fighting chance I could get away, so I put it across the ditch and I got in the pine trees and they were just coming and you had to make an absolute split second decision because if you went–you had to know what was over there, you had to be missing trees but you had to be checking your tail too. But finally I had a little straight shot back to the road. And I put it back across the ditch again. It was a little Corvair stick shift, and if it hadn’t a been we’d never have gotten through that. Tore that car up on both sides. Got through though, and when I did they started screaming and shooting. Because they were all caught behind the truck then, they were on the other side of the truck, nobody could even give chase immediately. Man, I took that thing, I just threw dirt and gravel all over them and got outta there. They didn’t hit me, they didn’t hit the car or anything, they were still shooting. Got back to the main road and hit straight into Philadelphia ‘cause I knew that if I could find – I knew there were boarders at the motel and also the FBI was there. And I knew the FBI wouldn’t be much help, but I didn’t think they would just grab us.
CM: Watch you get killed.
BZ: They weren’t gonna watch us get killed. Maybe. So anyway, we beat ‘em into the little motel. First door I knocked - I had two room numbers, one was the press and one was the FBI and I knocked on what I thought was the FBI door and Carl Fleming came to the door from Newsweek. And he said, “Gentlemen, my God, what in the world are you doing here?” You know, it’s 5:30 in the morning, 5 o’ clock in the morning, just barely daylight. And by this time, all the pickup trucks pulling into the driveway into the parking lot. None of them had tags and all of them had gun racks and I said, “Carl, I’m sorry, I thought this was the FBI room.” And he said, “No, they’re down that way.” So Claude Stitman was in the room with Fleming, and he said, “Carl, invite those folk in and let them have a drink of whiskey.” So we came in and you know, I–they talked to Rita, I introduced them to this lawyer and everything.
CM: That would have been the best whiskey ever.
BZ: It was the best whiskey ever, because Stitman said, “Carl, have you lost your manners, man?” I mean, he was obviously scared to death, we were all scared to death. Stitman said, “Come on, I’ll go with you to the FBI.” So we went down to the FBI door and knocked on the FBI door and that red-headed, crewcut little FBI man–I almost always know his name, but I almost always repress it–he came to the door and he said, “My God, Zellner, what the heck are you doing here? Rita Schwerner!” He says, “You wanna get everybody here killed?” And we said, “No, we don’t wanna get everybody here killed, we’ve been in here trying to find out what happened to out guys and you see what’s happening out here.” And he says, “Well, yeah.” And I said, “Do you know, there’s not a truck out there that has a tag on it?” “No, we can’t tell that.” I said, “Well, is it against the law for them to be driving around with no tag?” He says, “Well, that may be a state law, but it’s not a federal law.” So we said, “All we want to do is try to get out of here alive. We can only call - the only thing we can do is call the Sheriff.” So the FBI calls Rainey and Price and has them come down and they turned us over to ‘em. So then we had to put up a front and we said we insisted, in front of the FBI and the press, we said “We will not leave until we see the car” because they had just found the burned out car. We said, “We understand you’ve located the car, and we demand to see it.” He said, “You’re in no position to demand anything.” He said, “You’ll be lucky to live through the day.” I mean, right there in front of everybody, you know?! I said, “We will not leave until we see it.” “Ok, I’ll take you to see the car. I’m gonna give you five minutes, and then I’m gonna take you to the city limits and you’re on your own.” And that’s exactly what happened. But by that time, we had done what we wanted to do with the press and the FBI and the local people and the Klan, they all knew. So they couldn’t very well capture us on the way back to Meridian.
CM: So were these Klansman in robes during the time? They were? They weren’t. Did you recognize any of them?
BZ: I’m pretty sure it was Bowers’ bunch and everything. I later became acquainted with them because I worked in Laurel.
CM: You worked in Laurel?
BZ: I worked in Laurel for so many years after that but I didn’t recognize any of them.
CM: That is an extraordinary story.